New findings behind lead poisoning of crew on 1845-48 expedition

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Until now historians have believed that lead poisoning from badly tinned food was the primary cause of the death of all 129 men on the 1845-48 expedition led by Sir John Franklin to find a North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. His two ships, HMS Erebus and Terror, were trapped in the ice off King William Island in September 1846 and abandoned the following April as the crews tried to walk to safety. New evidence suggests that the level of lead found in the bodies and bone fragments of some twenty-five remains discovered since 1982 was so high that it could not possibly have come from the tins. William Battersby, an independent researcher, points the finger instead at the prototype steam-based heating systems put into both ships, when ex-railway engines were installed to covert them for the expedition from pure sailing ships to auxiliary steamers. These heating systems were required to distil the tons of fresh water that the engines consumed. Whereas previous polar expeditions had melted ice for their drinking water, on this expedition the new distillation systems, with their new lead plumbing; would also have been used to keep the drinking water tanks topped up. The full findings have been published in the Journal of the Hakluyt Society, see .

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